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Cargo of Gold, Silver on Ship That Sank Off Florida 400 Years Ago

Vilhelm Melbye, a Spanish xebec and other commercial craft near Gibraltar, 1873.
For centuries, the gold treasures of the Spanish ship Santa Margarita, which sank off the coast of Florida about four centuries ago, remained hidden. Credit: Public Domain

Santa Margarita, a Spanish ship that sank off the coast of Florida about four centuries ago, kept its treasures hidden for many centuries. This extraordinary tale of lost wealth and sunken splendor unfolded in the waters off the coast of modern day Key West in 1622.

A Spanish galleon, destroyed by a brutal hurricane, met its untimely demise and led to the loss of more than a hundred and forty lives. In addition, a cargo of gold, silver bars, luxury jewelry, and other New World treasures sank to the bottom.

History of Santa Margarita, the ship loaded with gold treasures

The Santa Margarita, a formidable Spanish galleon of six hundred tons armed with twenty-five cannons, played a significant role in the maritime landscape of 1622. As part of the fleet, the ship is believed to have set off on a voyage to Spain, laden with a huge cargo of looted treasures from the New World. This wealth included thousands of silver coins, over five hundred and fifty silver bars, and many ounces of gold in various forms.

In addition to its official cargo, the Santa Margarita is believed to have housed contraband and a fortune in “unregistered” treasure to avoid the twenty percent tax imposed by the Spanish king. These items included medical and navigational instruments, gold coins, and precious jewelry, further adding to the riches of this ill-fated vessel. As time passed, the ship’s wood rotted away, and its wreckage, along with its treasure, was buried under layers of sand and mud.

Treasures found 400 Years Later

For nearly four centuries, the remains of this Spanish ship lay buried in the shifting sands and murky embrace of the Florida Straits, protected by the mysteries of time and ebb and flow of ocean currents. However, it was not destined to remain there eternally.

In 1980, the marine world became obsessed with a discovery. Part of the Santa Margarita, along with a staggering twenty-five million dollars worth of sunken treasure, was detected by a search and rescue team forty miles off the coast of Florida. The sea has, nevertheless, still not revealed all its secrets.

This discovery captured the attention of the scientific world but was soon forgotten for several decades. The turning point that once again attracted the attention of treasure lovers to Santa Margarita was in 2008. That discovery was actually not made by a scientific team but by a young treasure diver and metal seeker, Michael DeMar.

Scanning the ocean floor near the crash site, he discovered what at first glance appeared to be an inconspicuous object buried in a foot of white sand. However, upon closer inspection, the discovery turned out to be a solid gold bowl worth a staggering one million dollars. An ornate two-handled bowl, nearly five inches tall and large enough to hold a softball, sat on a golden base.

This unexpected finding highlighted the wealth enjoyed by the galleon’s wealthy passengers four centuries ago. Many of the items recovered from the ship are presently showcased at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum in Key West.

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